Dwindling church revives with grand vision
January 27, 2019
In 2011, the Rev. Dwayne Black was called to The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with one mandate: Turn the church around with its aging and dwindling membership on its eight-acre waterfront property or close its doors.
“The church was either going to be the biggest albatross or the biggest blessing,” Black said.
At its height in 1966, the church had a membership of 1,580. By 2008, the membership had fallen to 104.
“When I came to Sanctuary Church in 2011, our membership was down to 25 people, many of whom were in their 80s. There was a sense of security in not changing, but God is always about change — God is always moving. It’s dishonoring to those who came before us if we don’t change,” said Black.
Black quickly began partnering with local social justice nonprofit organizations. Every empty space in the church began filling with outreach programs that reflected the community.
“We partnered with every organization you could think of. I learned I had to go to the people, not expect the people to come to me, to minister to them,” he said. The congregation also learned that they had to give everything away — space and place — to move on to bigger things.
On an average day, more than 400 people attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are present on the church campus. Black is visible at their meetings and has an open office door policy, establishing personal relationships with those who attend. A number of other recovery groups meet on campus as well.
For Black, though, partnering is more than offering space on the church’s campus. It means working with people like Arnold Abbott of Love Thy Neighbor, an interfaith nonprofit organization that helps the homeless in Broward County. With more than 10,000 homeless men, women and children, Love Thy Neighbor works to preserve the integrity of the individual as well as to help them help themselves.
Black joins with other volunteers to provide meals for more than 1,400 homeless people per week. The Sanctuary Church even opened its doors to help train those in recovery through Love Thy Neighbor’s culinary skills training program. Over the past two years, the program has had more than 400 graduates, helping the homeless get off the streets and back into society as productive, contributing members.
But the church was destined to do even more. One day, Black had a vision to transform the waterfront campus into a residential, commercial and community center where multitudes would come. It would be called Sanctuary Village, incorporating affordable housing, an amphitheater, green spaces, retail establishments and restaurants, health care facilities, schools, offices, outdoor education and a place for the celebration of the arts. Every business would give a small percentage of its profits to a mission of their choice that impacts the community.
The presbytery has partnered with the session to see this dream come to fruition.
“Sanctuary Church was a church in decline and then a few years ago caught the wind of the Spirit that mission is their point of contact with how God is moving in the community. In an effort to truly live missionally, the church has fully embraced its calling to live into, and even create, a place where community is for all God’s people,” said the Rev. Dr. Daris Bultena, general presbyter.
Bultena was invited to participate in the “Master Plan Workshop” that landscape architect and urban designer Kona Gray held with the church’s session. During that workshop, he sat back and watched the session members express their desire for a place that builds community, welcomes the poor, provides service, has space for nonprofits to come together, and lives fully the commitment that it is all about mission. It was a moment when Bultena says he saw what the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been calling “the kingdom of God.”
“Other churches and pastors in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida are very interested in what is happening because it touches us deep — we are ready to really do something more than decline; we know God has more in store for us,” Bultena said.
Sherry Blackman, Pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania
Today’s Focus: The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Lord, we lift up those in our rural communities who are struggling and dealing with terrible stress, abuse, depression or even thoughts of suicide. We pray for those answering your call and that vital ministries continue. Amen.